Mark Spencer – 2022 Statement on the Restoration of the Palace of Westminster

The statement made by Mark Spencer, the Leader of the House of Commons, in the House on 12 July 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House:

reaffirms its commitment to preserving the Palace of Westminster for future generations and ensuring the safety of all those who work in and visit the Palace, now and in the future;

notwithstanding the Resolution of 31 January 2018, welcomes the report from the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions proposing a new mandate for the Restoration and Renewal works and a new governance structure to support them;

accordingly endorses the recommendations set out in the Commissions’ report; and

in consequence, approves the establishment of a joint department of the two Houses, under the terms of the Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007.

May I say at the outset what an honour it is to stand here, in this historic and iconic Chamber, which is recognised around the world. We are truly privileged to represent our constituents here. However, we also have a responsibility to ensure that it is here for future generations, and a responsibility for its upkeep and preservation. We take those responsibilities very seriously. So today, on behalf of the House of Commons Commission, I am asking the House to endorse the report from the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions—which was unanimously agreed on a cross-party basis—recommending a revised mandate for the Restoration and Renewal programme, and to approve the motion before the House.

The building needs to be repaired; that is not in question. The Commissions are united in recognising that, and we reaffirm our commitment to protecting this historic palace for future generations. The Commissions have worked constructively and across party lines to address Parliament’s shared challenge, and I therefore welcome the signature of the spokesman for the House of Commons Commission, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), on the motion.

In that context, the amendment proposed by the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), is somewhat disappointing, and contrary to the spirit in which work has proceeded so far. I think that the hon. Lady and I have a constructive working relationship, and I hope that we can get back on an even keel and find a way through this. We certainly agree that the need for the work is urgent, that delay in starting it will increase the costs and risks, and that it should be started as soon as possible to—in the words of the Joint Commission—

“ensure the maximum value for money”.

There is definitely no blank cheque available from the taxpayer.

The hon. Lady’s amendment does not really add anything to the report of the Joint Commission; rather, it is at odds with the consensual and productive cross-party approach taken by the Joint Commissions of both Houses. Rebuilding the Palace of Westminster is a huge task and it will require all parliamentarians to take difficult decisions and both Houses to be in agreement. If we are divided or deliberately partisan, our tasks will become near impossible. I hope the hon. Lady will reflect and withdraw her amendment, but I look forward to hearing her words when she gets to her feet. I hope we can work constructively together in the near future to deliver the project.

Nevertheless, the question will no doubt arise: why are we here again? Surely the debates of 2019 finished the issue and we should not be back revisiting it. In fact, we are at a crossroads where decisions are required in a radically different context. In 2018, decisions on the structure of the programme were made at a time when estimates were in the region of £3.5 billion, with a programme to decant for approximately six years. This was the context in which the two Houses agreed the current approach. But in early 2022, the Sponsor Body published its essential schemes options. It estimated the cost to be between £7 billion and £13 billion and that the work would take between 19 and 28 years and require a full decant of the Palace of Westminster for between 12 and 20 years. Those are certainly very different from the figures with which we were presented in the past. The Sponsor Body also concluded that work would probably not begin until 2027 at the very earliest.

This is a very different proposition. A gap has emerged between what is realistic, practical and can be justified to taxpayers, and what is being proposed by the Sponsor Body. These estimates make it difficult to proceed down this path only two years after the pandemic and facing a challenging fiscal context. In 2019 it was thought that an independent body was best placed to act on behalf of Parliament and guide this project, but we must now recognise the flaws in that model. As the independent panel says, the governance structure envisaged in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 was based on certainty: a project flows through a standard business case cycle with clear progress, “unimpeded by the Client”. But Parliament presents a particularly complex environment, and this is a programme spanning multiple Parliaments, so the governance structure must, in the words of the panel, be able to

“anticipate and adapt to changing demands”.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am very critical of what the Commissions have done in this regard because I have a terrible fear that if we just keep on changing the governance structure time after time, we will never move forward until there is some catastrophe in the building. That is precisely what happened in the 19th century, and it looks as if we are going to do it all over again, with politicians meddling in something that should be done for generations. Can he confirm, however, that his motion today will not be contradictory to a full decant of both Houses across eight years, which I know is his personal preference?

Mark Spencer

I am happy to confirm that to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has taken a great interest in this project. It is important to be clear with the House today that taking the Sponsor Body back in-house and back under the control of the House does not rule out any option. It does not rule out the option of a decant of 20 years. What I am saying to the House is that I do not think that that is a deliverable option. We need to look at some more practical measures, and I will come to that later in my speech. It is difficult to comprehend how we can deliver a project of this magnitude without some form of decant, but I am not an expert and, as the hon. Gentleman says, lots of Members are not experts in this field, so we need the delivery authority, which will have that expertise, to guide us and to come to those decisions very quickly.

Dame Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)

The Leader of the House has acknowledged that he is not an expert, and that most of us in this House are not experts on running major projects. The original intention of the Act of Parliament passed by this House, which has been unpicked in private in the Commissions, was that an expert body, the Sponsor Body, would be created to deliver that expertise. That body has now been abolished. He says that it has been brought in-house, but many people have left it. Can he be very precise with the House about exactly what will replace it, and where he thinks that expertise will come from in the Commissions, which in both Houses do not have the inbuilt expertise to deliver this project?

Mark Spencer

I will come to that, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right. What we need to do is get on with this project and stop dilly-dallying, which is why the direction of travel was not as rapid as the Commissions and I wanted. We were heading for a huge confrontation with this House, because I do not think the plans would have been palatable to Members when we finally got there. There is a shortcut we can take to expedite this process, and I will come to the structure later. I think we can get to a place where we can all agree to tap into the expertise she says we need, and that is what we are trying to establish.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Do we not also need some common sense and realism? Surely the priority is to do those works that are essential to the safety of the building and its occupants. We have to understand the mood of the times and say to the experts that to allow this enormous escalation in the project’s cost, scope and timing is simply not acceptable.

Mark Spencer

I honestly think we can do both. I think we can get to an understanding and a place where, with expert advice, we can get value for taxpayers’ money, where we can progress this as rapidly as possible and where we can take a more common-sense approach.

The Commissions have taken all these points on board, carefully assessed the options and sought independent advice on the best way forward. The Commissions, with cross-party representation and independent and external members, have taken a unanimous decision that it is necessary to revise the approach to the governance and mandate of the R&R programme.

We need a governance structure that is responsive to the requirements of the parliamentary context, is accountable to Parliament and is better placed to build the necessary consensus. The Commissions have judged that this can be best achieved through an in-house structure. The Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act will remain in place and will continue to provide the statutory underpinning.

The current Sponsor Body will be abolished, and its functions under the Act will be transferred to two corporate officers who will become the statutory duty holders. The Act provides for this flexibility by allowing for the Sponsor Body to be abolished and for its functions to be transferred. The proposed in-house governance structure will consist of two tiers: a client board on which the two Commissions have strategic oversight; and a programme board with external expertise that will be central to resolving critical choices and priorities.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

One of the reasons why those of us who sat on the Joint Committee seven years ago—it is sad that so much time has gone by—did not look to do this in-house was that we judged that the expertise did not exist in-house. Although there are some fantastic people working here, I am afraid the House does not have a great track record of delivering projects cost-effectively. Why does my right hon. Friend think this will now somehow change?

Mark Spencer

That is a little disingenuous. The cast-iron roof project, for example, was delivered in-house and was delivered on time and on budget, which demonstrates that the House authorities do have that ability, but I think they would also recognise that they do not have the expertise, which is why it will be brought in. The programme board will be the structure that has experts who are able to advise and come forward with proposals.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

Following on from my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), it is certainly a fact that the people who will be in the joint department have signed off projects in this House such as the Elizabeth Tower, which has trebled in cost. Can the Leader of the House give the House an absolute guarantee that the expert panel will be in place throughout the project and that the joint department will actually take its advice?

Mark Spencer

That would require this House to change that model again if that were the case. That expertise will be brought in and accessed, which is what we require; we do require that expertise. My hon. Friend said that he did not think there was a huge track record, but the model on which we were operating was driving us towards a huge cliff edge where we were going to be faced with a bill of the top side of £20 billion and a decant of 20-plus years, which I do not think this House would tolerate or vote for. We would be completely hamstrung. In that circumstance, what I am suggesting, as are the two Commissions, is that in this model we can come forward with some more practical measures and reprioritisation, which I will come to in a moment.

The relatively small staff team of the Sponsor Body will be brought in-house as a Joint Department, accountable to the Corporate Officers, delivering the strategic case and working in tandem with Strategic Estates. Let me emphasise that the Delivery Authority’s role will remain unchanged; that valuable expertise and experience will remain in place. The senior leadership of the Delivery Authority will continue and, following recent discussions, I am confident and positive about their ability to work within the new governance structure.

Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

On the staff team and the Sponsor Body, will the Leader of the House give a commitment that all of the staff team will be brought in-house and that that will be done speedily so that they do not find themselves in the limbo they are currently in?

Mark Spencer

They are currently planned to TUPE across, and they will be taken across. Some of them have already left, but it is important to understand that the real expertise is within the Delivery Authority. We have secured the use of those individuals and they are busy on other projects within the House.

There is a need, highlighted in the Public Accounts Committee’s report—one that the Commissions absolutely recognise and have sought to address in their report—for the programme to enable long-term decision making. The Commissions’ report recommends that an end-state vision should be developed. Having a clear end goal in sight allows granular decisions to follow, and Parliament will have to accept compromises and take some difficult decisions in setting that long-term direction. But we cannot anticipate all the needs or events of the future. Opportunities for periodic review allow the programme to adapt to changing fiscal, societal and political contexts. Neither can we override parliamentary sovereignty. It is just realistic to recognise that there must be opportunities for future Parliaments to review decisions.

The House is further being asked to endorse a revised approach to the works, one that puts safety first. Parliament must be guided by rigorous value-for-money considerations. In these economic times, financial responsibility must be our watchword. As I said earlier, there is no blank cheque from the taxpayer.

Chris Bryant

May I try again?

Mark Spencer

Of course.

Chris Bryant

The Leader of the House keeps talking about how every Parliament has to be able to reform and change the system, but that is just like procurement in the Ministry of Defence; we just keep changing the specification of the tank and it gets more and more expensive, because we never move forward. That is the real danger that a lot of us are worrying about, which is why we wanted to have an arm’s-length organisation. The membership of the Commissions does not even stay the same. I am guessing it might change when he is no longer Leader of the House, perhaps on 6 September. All these changes just make it impossible for us to drive forward a project in a cost-effective and non-risky way.

Mark Spencer

The hon. Gentleman is wrong, in that we are changing the structures but he has to recognise that if this project is to take 25 years to deliver to its final conclusion, it is entirely possible that the circumstances in 25 years’ time will not be the same as they are today. It is clearly possible to imagine a circumstance, in fairly recent times, where the internet did not exist, and clearly that technology was not considered when we were adapting and changing the House—that has had to be built in. I do not know, as I do not have a crystal ball, what technology may be required in the future. We need to have the flexibility of foot to be able to accommodate any of those future changes.

Sir Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con)

Is it not the case that this project may never end, because as things go on breaking and evolving, we will be doing this forever. Therefore my right hon. Friend is right to take it in-house, and to keep the bills low, because my constituents want the potholes in their roads repaired and they want a hospital. They are very happy with this but they are not as bothered about this place as they are about their own? So is not this just going to be an endless process, which we need to manage on an ongoing basis?

Mark Spencer

Where my hon. Friend is right is that it is a little bit like the Forth Bridge, in that there will always be something that will need to be maintained, protected or made safe. In the short term, we need to prioritise those things. There are four areas that the Commissions want to prioritise; I hope the House will agree that they are all very important priorities. No. 1 is fire and safety; that is absolutely fundamental to what we should be driving towards. Building services are second, then asbestos, and then building fabric conservation. I hope Members will agree that those are indeed urgent priorities for us to focus on.

Dame Meg Hillier

On the point of fire safety, could the Leader of the House confirm that the tens of millions of pounds—£140 million or so—that has been spent on the fire safety system to date protects those of us who may be working or in the building at the time, so that we could escape; but it does not protect the building? Would he also confirm that he is aware of, and understands, the responsibilities that UNESCO places on the Government of the day to make sure that this world heritage site does survive?

Mark Spencer

Of course; it is absolutely vital. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that actually Notre Dame burned down—a terrible disaster—because workmen were in there. They had actually decanted, and it was the workmen who were working in there that finally burnt down Notre Dame. So we do have a responsibility to make sure not only that people are safe, but that the building is here for hundreds of years to come. I think we can achieve that by making those our four most important priorities.

For the medium and long term, the Commissions’ report sets out the parameters of how to deliver the works, above all advocating better integration of all the various safety, repair and renewal works that are taking place across the palace. That approach could allow decisions to be brought to Parliament quicker, work to start faster, and priorities to be flexed where required.

Turning to the next steps, the motion before the House is to endorse the recommendations of the Joint Commission and agree the change to the response function and the revised mandate to the works. Secondary legislation will be required to give effect to some of these decisions. So over the next year options will be reviewed, and a strategic case will be presented to the House in 2023. It is important for Members to understand that the House is not being asked for a decision on decant or costs today. Members will be consulted, and will have opportunities to engage with the decision making, and the House will need to take future decisions on these issues at a later date. In the meantime, the Commissions have endorsed a pragmatic approach that will allow work to be undertaken in the interim.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown

This is a critically important point. The Leader of the House has said that an outline business case will be presented, with options, in 2023. Following that, can he tell the House when a contract to start the work is likely to take place—that it is likely to take place in this Parliament? That would make it less likely that a following Parliament would alter the decision?

Mark Spencer

That clearly would be the ambition—to try and get on with that as soon as possible, but there is lots of other work that we can get on with in the meantime. For example, there is a plan to renovate the Victoria Tower at the other end of this building. That was going to be left until the restoration and renewal project was fully under way, but under this model we shall be able to get on with that much more quickly, and make sure that that masonry is secure and in place for future generations.

Let me turn to amendment (b) tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others. To be clear, the House is not being asked for a decision on decant today: the extent to which the House should move is ultimately for Members to consider. The report does not make a recommendation on length, the moves or location, nor does anything in the motion or Commissions’ report predetermine any outcome. So we may well end up in the place advocated in amendment (b). However, I am asking the House today not to bind the hands of those who are looking at this—to give them a free hand to go and consider these things in a timely way and to come back with a very firm and clear plan.

The intrusive surveys, which are nearing completion, will offer us a clearer view of the condition of the House. The proposed amendment would further tie our hands and require us to make a decision on the basis of incomplete information and evidence. Let us allow the Delivery Authority to do its job and complete the intrusive survey, then take the decision on decant informed by the evidence in 2023, as originally planned. In my view, the state of the building is such that a period of decant will be required, but unlike some hon. Members, I do not wish to pre-emptively decide on a timeframe.

Many Members will agree with the spirit of this amendment. The Commissioners present will hear what Members say during the debate, and I hope their views will be taken on board as we move forward. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to press the amendment. This is not the time to commit the House or to bind the Commissions’ hands. I hope that we can join together and move forward. The Commissions have unanimously agreed to propose a new way forward, one that allows us to balance our requirements of a working legislature and our responsibility to take decisions appropriate to the economic context in which we find ourselves today. I bring this motion to the House on behalf of the Commissions.